Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with ancestry.com, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.

 

“Get thee to a diverse community of scholars committed to social justice on a global scale!”

OK, the countdown has begun in earnest! In a mere two weeks I’ll start classes at Boston University’s School of Theology.

While I’ve done a lot of “discernment” around this myself, I realized recently that this is a confusing concept for some in my wider circle. Just yesterday I had someone tell me with an incredulous chuckle he’d heard I was “joining a seminary.”

The picture he had was, let’s say: Rabelaisian. Maybe if it were the 15th Century, but with everything going on right now in the Catholic Church I don’t want people to get this twisted. It’s not that.

Nor is this a “get thee to a nunnery” scenario.

I haven’t renounced my… well, anything, really. (Except the eight or nine grand I’m paying in tuition and insurance per academic year and any chance of an off-campus social life for the foreseeable future.)

So. Real talk: 

I chose BU because they gave me a reasonable package and the Global & Community Engagement track offers a number of useful courses and certificates in awesome stuff like Nonprofit Management and opportunities for study abroad as part of my three-year degree. This track offers training in interfaith dialogue and conflict transformation in ecumenical settings, to be sure, but it also offers more broadly applicable work in social and economic justice and nonprofit leadership.

Having worked in higher ed administration and nonprofits and not really finding a happy or stable niche in either, my career sort of took a turn a few years back into areas of social and economic justice, working pretty intensively with food and housing insecurity in a number of contexts, from leading an organization dedicated to urban agriculture to mentoring youth in transitional housing.

One organization I currently work for around these issues is a Community Mental Health Center, the other is a Unitarian Universalist Church. Both gigs put me in touch with extraordinary people from all walks of life who are committed to making their communities more inclusive, more responsive, and more just. (I know it sounds hokey, but there really are incredibly smart people out there doing this work, trust me!)

Anyway, I knew I wanted to go on to get another degree that could help me get better situated to do the organizational work I wanted to do. I didn’t want something as limiting as an MSW or as wonky as an MPA, though either of these could easily have been a next step, careerwise. 

What I did want was a program that had a built-in community component. I had dated a guy for a couple years who was getting his MBA from Harvard and what struck me about his program was how much of it was really geared toward creating a sustainable network of relationships. It struck me that there are Masters programs that are geared almost exclusively toward professional certification, and then there are those, like MBAs and MDivs (as strange as it might seem to compare them), that have this community element that’s so essential to their true purpose and lasting value.

At no point was I required by Admissions to have or state a religious affiliation, which is awesome, because I don’t really have one, and the students I met there when visiting the program were from an extraordinary array of religious (and non-religious) backgrounds. There was not a lot of talk at the community lunch I attended about metaphysics and dogma. I’m sure it goes on, but everyone I spoke to seemed much more concerned with the logistics of making the world a better place. And that’s the kind of community I need right now.  

It all made perfect sense at the time, anyway.

I’ll let you know how I feel about it when I’m cramming for my Hebrew Bible final in a couple months.